I thought you might be interested in reading the opening pages of my newly issued ebook.
Our words matter. The book of Genesis portrays God’s creating the world by speaking. In a related way we humans create the world we live in through our words. The way we talk to each other makes a world full of love and security, or a world of bitterness and anxiety.
Take a married couple. The man doesn’t talk. To compensate, his wife talks too much. In particular, she shoots off her mouth about his mother. If you press him, he would admit that his mother is far from perfect. But he simply doesn’t want to hear it all the time, even (especially?) from his wife. To him, the running down of his mother is like a dripping faucet. It’s not any particular drip that kills him; it’s the wearing effect of the whole thing.
Of course, he doesn’t tell his wife this. He knows that would just start a fight, and he doesn’t want to get into that. He figures he can hunker down and live with her complaints. But they wear on him.
What wears on his wife is his silence. She wants to hear that her husband loves her, and likes the way she looks. He does compliment her cooking, but that doesn’t help. She knows she is a good cook. Her attractiveness is what she needs affirmed.
Her husband is not a sentimental person, and she knew that when she married him. She didn’t know how wearisome it would be. She is tired of taking the initiative; she wants him to bring a little romance to the marriage. For a long time she tried to wheedle it out of him, but she’s given that up. He just won’t listen to her needs, she says.
Can anyone help these two? A moralistic approach won’t work; they both can give you nine yards of reasons why they’re justified in their behavior. Anyway, neither one is doing anything obviously wrong. The woman isn’t lying about her mother-in-law. The man isn’t disobeying a commandment that says you have to talk to your wife all the time. If you try to preach to them (as they would call it), they’ll reject the message and maybe the messenger.
You could take a more psychological approach and try to delve into their past. Maybe the husband is silent because his father didn’t show love to him. Maybe the wife complains about her mother-in-law because she lacks self-esteem. If you turned over enough rocks in their past some bugs would crawl out. But there’s no certainty you would ever get to the basis of why they behave as they do, or that they would be able to change their behavior if you did. How is self-esteem built in a grown woman who lacks it?
Without taking anything away from either the moral or psychological approaches, I would offer another way. It would help a great deal, I believe, if they both learned how to talk. The woman needs to learn to carefully limit her critiques of her mother-in-law. The man needs to learn some ways to say, “I love you” so his wife can hear it. Both of them need to learn new ways of bringing up sore subjects without starting fights that make everything worse. If they learned such skills, it might not put an end to all their troubles, but it would be a very big and helpful start. It would stop the bleeding and begin to let their love flow through.
Such training in talking you don’t get in school. You get it—if you get it—at home. It is typically transmitted mother to daughter, father to son. Unfortunately, a lot of people miss out. Such training takes time, and it requires confidence on the part of the parents. If they themselves don’t know how to talk, they can’t very well pass it on.
I am peculiarly and painfully aware of this need for training because I missed out on so much of it. I grew up in a wonderful family, but it was the kind of family where, if you thought someone’s opinion was stupid, you said so. We had great debates around the kitchen table, my sisters and brother and parents and I. I learned how to think in my family, but I can’t say I learned how to talk. Perhaps this had more to do with my personal makeup than with my family makeup. For whatever reason, I was well into my college years before I learned that when you say to someone that his favorite movie is “incredibly dumb” you may hurt his feelings.
In addition, I was shy. Oftentimes shy people retreat into themselves and give the impression of unfriendly aloofness. I did, and nobody taught me how to compensate for that shyness.
I never had very intimate friendships in high school (can you guess why?), but when I got to college I began to experience closeness in a way I never had. The sheer loneliness of being freshmen far from home drove us together, and I made some wonderful friends.
Sometime in my second or third year I began to understand that others’ image of me did not match my image of myself. Others—particularly those who didn’t know me well—saw me as stern, aloof, and judgmental. Nobody told me that directly. Once I began to catch on, however, I got the message from all sides.
It pained me deeply, because it wasn’t true. I knew what was inside me. I was as aloof as a puppy dog. I was softhearted, if anything. I cared about people. I craved friendship.
At first I felt very hurt that people misjudged me. How could they? As I thought about it, though, I realized that the righteousness of my position didn’t matter much. In my writing classes I had learned a thing or two about communication. I knew that if you write a piece that people don’t “get,” you can’t say it is their fault. You have to rewrite it in a different way. You have to find a way to get your point across to your audience.
So I began to try to rewrite my behavior. I began consciously to say nice things to people, to let them know that I appreciated and liked them. I tried to act warmly. I began to hold my tongue when I had something to say that might be construed as critical or snobbish.
I hated it. It felt horribly unnatural. I despised having to watch my words, having to mull over every interaction to see whether I’d handled it well and gotten my message across. Why couldn’t I just be myself? I was, I suppose, a true child of the sixties: I believed that simply being sincere was enough. Now I felt that I was acting insincerely, putting on an act.
My changes did bring noticeably better results, though. People told me I was different. They told me I seemed warmer, happier. People opened up to me. People sought me out. I liked those differences. And I found that I got used to the act I was putting on. Over months and years it grew comfortable. Eventually it became liberating. It became me.
For years I have coached youth soccer. Most of the under-ten kids I get only know how to kick with their right foot. They may be fairly skilled at kicking with their right foot, but when they try to kick left-footed, they look incredibly spastic. Usually they give a pitifully weak kick that dribbles the ball a few yards in front of them. Sometimes they miss the ball entirely and fall on their rears.
As their coach, I know that soccer players have to learn to use both feet. So I encourage them to use the “off” foot, the one that’s uncoordinated. There is no magic trick I can teach them. They just have to do it. If they do, they will get better at it, and one day they will feel as natural kicking with the “off” foot as they do with their primary foot. In the end they will become much better soccer players than if they simply continue improving with just one foot.
We ordinarily choose to do the things we’re comfortable doing. Sometimes you have to make yourself uncomfortable and do things differently—strange as that may feel—until you become comfortable again. Sometimes you have to kick left-footed. That’s what I discovered in college about my ways of relating to people. Spontaneity and sincerity aren’t enough. You need to be trained. In fact, it’s only the well-trained athlete who can make the spontaneous play. He’s the only one who has the skill to see all the options.
We talk about lives being changed from the inside out. My experience is that they are sometimes changed from the outside in. As we change our behavior, it becomes possible for us to feel differently, perceive differently, and live differently.
What worries people about such an approach is that it seems calculated and artificial. It seems phony. I am sure that it could be. That wasn’t my experience, however. To the contrary, though it felt phony, it helped me develop deeper and more authentic relationships with people.
When I learned how to stop putting people off with my seeming aloofness, when I learned how to say that I liked people and to show an interest in their lives, I began to make freer and more open friendships. This in turn made me into a far more confident, friendly person—naturally. I can honestly say that learning how to talk changed my life. It enabled me to be myself.
The book is That’s Not What I Meant: Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. I believe it’s the most practical thing I’ve ever written. You can buy it here.